1. What is the research process you go through for your novels?
Because all of my books are set in different places and times, I need to go through an extensive stage of learning everything I can about the world of my story before I even start thinking about my characters and plot. I usually start with determining the exact setting and time-frame for the story, and then set out to read everything I can about it. I order a lot of books over the net. I like to own all my research books as I shall mark them with highlighters, scribble notes on them, and return to them again and again. I love Abe Books because I can buy a lot of my books second-hand that way, and I also love Google Books because I can preview the book and see if it is what I need. I do a lot of research online as well, following a trail of breadcrumbs as far as it will lead me before it peters out.
As I read my research books or search the internet, I make meticulous notes in a notebook, recording the title, the author, the page number etc. This makes it easier for me to find the reference again when I am fact-checking. I also scribble down ideas as they come to me. The research often throws up the events in my story for me. I also note down other books I might need.
I begin to compile a list of characters, noting down key facts about them - their birth and death dates, their backgrounds, etc. This can sometimes take a long time, because most of my historical novels are inspired by the lives of real women, and so there is often only a few scraps of information about them. For example, when I was writing THE WILD GIRL - the story of Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told the Grimm brothers many of their most famous fairy tales - the only known facts about her life were where she grew up (in Kassel, next door to the Grimm family), her father's occupation (an apothecary), and the dates of her marriage to Wilhelm Grimm and her death. It took some time for me to track down her birth-date, with the help of the local history department at Kassel library, and then I had to imagine many other details of her life by studying the lives of other young German women of the era. I create detailed outlines for each major character, including what I call an idiom dictionary (which is simply a list of favourite words, expressions, curses etc; different for each character.)
I also begin to compile timelines. This will be an ongoing project because each new research book I read will give me another tiny piece of the puzzle. I generally have a general timeline, with only brief notes for each event, and then a much longer timeline that may have as much as a page of notes for each event. I may also create a separate timeline for each major character, for ease of reference when I am working on their stories.
As I read and research, I draw up lists of questions I need the answer to, and then I will slowly and methodically search out the answer to each question.
I will also be slowly building a plot-line for my story, thinking about the inner architecture of the story, thematic structures, scenes I wish to include. The more research I do, the more story I have.
I will also search out experts in their field who may be able to help me, and I may employ a translator or research assistant . For example, when I was writing Bitter Greens - a retelling of Rapunzel interwoven with the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the French noblewoman woman who first wrote the tale - I paid to have all of her fairy tales translated into English, many for the first time. The stories were written in 1697, and so the French was archaic and the printing very old-fashioned and hard to read. My translator Sylvie really earned her money!
I also read a lot of social history books as well - I like to know how my characters would have lived. I want to know if they wore underwear, what they ate, what they read, what they did with their urine, if they slept sitting up or lying down ...
I try to do as much research as I can before I start writing, but the story will always throw up new questions and new problems, and often I will need to stop writing and find out what I need to know before I can go on.
2. Have you always done extensive research for each of your novels? Or does the process change for different stories you write?
Naturally, it depends on what kind of novel I am writing. Research for a 30,000 word children's fantasy novel is obviously much less intense than research for a 160,000 historical novel for adults that has three different time periods in it!
3. One of the problems I have is knowing when you have enough research to start writing, how do you figure this out for yourself?
I don't really think you can do too much research. The more you know, the more vivid the world will be.
The trick is to learn as much as you can, internalise it, and then write the story. Too much exposition, too much detail, will weigh your story down. You need to include just enough to make the world feel real for the reader, and no more.
Sometimes authors will use the research process as an excuse to procrastinate. This usually means they are feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task they had set themselves. In this case, it can be a good idea to begin writing. Writing begets writing, and so it may help them overcome the psychological barrier that is holding them back.
Normally I know I'm ready to start writing when my head is full of scenes and snippets of dialogue and images that are keeping me awake, and I feel that seething excitement in the pit of my stomach as the story comes alive in my imagination
4. Do you have a passion for research? Is it something you enjoy?
I love research. I always say that research is simply reading with a purpose. I love to read, and I love to learn, and research allows me to do both at once. I also love the way that research throws up ideas for the story itself. It helps me plan my novel, which I think is absolutely crucial.
5. Some of your characters in your novels are real life historical figures; after having researched these figures, do you ever have trouble trying to fit actual elements of their lives into your storyline? Or do you feel in this case authors have a sense of creative license with them as characters in their story?
I always take the known facts of their lives, and set those as my immoveable pegs. Then I try and understand the forces that shaped their psyche, and drove them to do what they did, and then weave my imagined story around those known facts.
The best example I can give you is the story of Dortchen Wild's life, which I told in THE WILD GIRL.
I knew from primary sources such as letters and diaries that Dortchen grew up next door to the Grimm family, and that she first met Wilhelm when she was twelve and he was seventeen. I knew that she had a childish crush on him , thanks to a letter she wrote to her best friend, Lotte Grimm, when she was thirteen. I knew that her sister Gretchen told the very first fairy tale that the Grimm brothers collected when Dortchen was seventeen. I knew that Dortchen herself began to tell Wilhelm stories when she was eighteen, and that she was the source of almost a quarter of the tales in the first collection of fairy tales. I knew that they fell in love, but Dortchen's father forbade her from seeing Wilhelm. I knew that she defied her father, because she continued to tell fairy tales to Wilhelm. In many cases I knew where and when they were when she told him her tales, because Wilhelm wrote the name of the teller and, often in the case of Dortchen, the date and place the story was told in the margins of his first edition copy of the first fairytale collection.
What I did not know was why Dortchen defied her father - a grave misdeamonour for a young German Lutheran woman in the early 1800s - or why she told the stories she did. Some were very dark, very violent, very sexual.
I also knew that Dortchen ended up marrying Wilhelm ... but not till she was thirty, twelve years after the beginning of their romance.
I would much have preferred her to marry him years earlier! Yet wondering why it took so long helped me to craft a much more interesting and powerful story (or so I believe).
6. Was the research process for your PhD thesis any different from what you do with your novels?
Not in essence. It's the same slow, laborious reading and sifting of facts and recording of sources and following trails of clues and red herrings to find what is unknown or forgotten. The primary difference is the material I am reading. When researching for a novel, I read very widely and seek to immerse myself fully in the period. When researching for my exegesis, I was reading a lot of academic papers and seeking to understand what others have thought and written about a subject, and then responding to it. The method was the same, the outcome different.